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It seems that the genome’s protein-coding regions get all the attention, but they don’t explain everything, certainly not everything about cancer. In fact, these regions, which account for less than 2% of the genome, are less cancer-type-specific than non-protein-coding regions of the genome. That’s the startling conclusion of a study (“Comprehensive Genomic Characterization of Long Non-coding RNAs across Human Cancers”) that appeared October 12 in the journal Cancer Cell.

The study focused on a particular kind of non-protein-coding DNA, the 70% of the genome that generates long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). After analyzing lncRNAs at transcriptional, genomic, and epigenetic levels in over 5,000 tumor specimens across 13 cancer types from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), the study’s authors found that lncRNA alterations are highly tumor- and cell line-specific compared to protein-coding genes. In addition, these investigators determined that lncRNA alterations are often associated with changes in epigenetic modifiers that act directly on gene expression.

The study’s authors consisted of an international team led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. “Our study provides convincing evidence that dysregulation of lncRNAs takes place at multiple levels in the cancer genome and that these alterations are strikingly cancer-type specific,” asserted Lin Zhang, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “We expect that additional important lncRNA discoveries will be enabled by our work.”

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